Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sermon for the funeral of Edward (Sandy) Hughes III

Jesus said, in my Father's house are many dwelling places. . . I go to prepare a place for you.  

I feel tremendously honored to be standing here today to remember the life of my dear friend and mentor Sandy Hughes and also, in light of his death, to set forth the truth of God. I got to know Connie and Sandy after I came to the seminary in Ambridge. I was pretty hard up at the time, and Connie mentioned that Sandy needed help on Saturdays doing work on their historic home in Sewickley. For the next three years I worked for Sandy almost every Saturday. Gradually he began to share with me his passion for old trucks and wood-working: it started with turning bowls and making stools. What eventually sealed our bond was a chair-making course we attended in my final year of seminary. I always like to tell the story that when I came back to seminary, all I could think about was making another chair. I did eventually make another chair four years later; this time we were in Sandy's basement with him as instructor. At the present time, I have another chair that is in process, but this one will have to come completion without the guidance of the master.

Over the years I learned many things from Sandy, like the proper volume for listening to opera (loud). I also learned that there is a distinctive shape to most projects whether it is laying a tile floor, making a Windsor chair or building a congregation: there is the initial hump of starting the project followed by a burst of energy. In remodeling projects this part consists of the demolition. Next follows the long and seemingly endless middle. During this period, the possibility of completion is greatly questioned especially by the neophyte. Finally, there is the finish which demands a great deal of exertion to bring all the loose ends together into a completed project. This rhythm in the shape of a project was like second nature to Sandy so that he rarely was intimated or discouraged by a task. Anybody that ever worked next to the man eventually realized that Sandy always knew the way to the end or at least that there was a way to the end.  From Sandy I also learned the wisdom of silence. The biblical proverbs speak of a proper time and content for speech. Idle and ill-timed words are destructive. To put it even more strongly, sometimes provocation and foolishness needs to be met with silence. In the Christian tradition, we see this in our Lord especially at his trial. Sandy's silences could be unnerving at first, but gradually I understood they stemmed from his wisdom. I heard Connie say once that the way Sandy used it a tool, it was like an extension of his hand: I might add that the way Sandy used his words, they were like an extension of his person.

Today we gather to give thanks to Almighty God for the life and witness of Sandy and to commend his soul to God's never-failing love and care. We give thanks for his accomplishments in engineering and construction: his projects were mammoth and wide-ranging. We also give thanks for his witness to sobriety and his friendship with Bill W. Obviously I did not know him before he went into the program, but I strongly suspect that much of his quiet strength had its origin in the twelve steps. Today, we especially give thanks for Sandy's devotion as a father and grandfather. His daughters and especially his grandchildren in my observation gave him more joy than anything. Connie, Jess, and Corrie, God bless you for the many seen and many more unseen ways in which you cared for him in his final illness. As a friend recently reflected, there is a kind of poverty in weakness and sickness, but your loving care meant that he was never abandoned to that poverty.

Today, let's be honest, we are in great deal of shock and sadness at a life that seems to have been prematurely cut short. The prayer book reminds us of the uncertainty of life with these sobering words: in the midst of life we are in death. It is fair to say, I think, that our hearts are broken—everywhere we turn there is heartache. In the church year we are in Lent. One of the themes of Lent is penitence, and every year on Ash Wednesday, the church recites Psalm 51, the great Psalm of penitence. In it, the Psalmist says, The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise. In the wider context of the Psalm, the Psalmist is reflecting on the fact that God does not accept empty religious ritual. The Psalmist realizes that the true heart of faith is not in the outward forms—in this case animal sacrifice—but in a heart broken and consecrated to the Lord. One might wonder why does the Lord seem to value so much a broken and contrite heart? Is it that he wants us to be sad and unhappy? No, it seems to me that when the heart is broken, then it can be filled up with love. The Bible says that we have hearts of stone. As long as we do not taste what the Bible calls the bread of adversity, we will be unable to empathize with others who sorrow or suffer. Once those hearts of stone have been broken, then the love of God can come and fill them up. And this is the pattern of the Bible. Those who have been broken and have confronted sorrow are the ones that find themselves consecrated to God in a particular way: consider Moses who in his youth and vitality is cast into exile away from his people, or Jeremiah who is called to prophesy to a people who would not hear or Mary Magdelene who has her life set a new course because of her relationship with the Lord. In each case a heart of sorrow and grief is transformed into a heart that burns with the fire of love for the Lord and for his people. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of how suffering perfected the Lord Jesus as our high priest. In rejection and sorrow and brokenness, his heart of love shines as if in the darkness. Consider some of his last words from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” “Woman, behold thy son. Behold thy mother.” “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” The wounded heart is the heart that can be filled with love.

In our Gospel today, the Lord Jesus speaks of going before his disciples, before us, to prepare a place. He says, in my Father's house there are many rooms. The older translation read in his Father's house, there are many mansions. Neither is exactly right. Jesus is not promising a large house nor is he saying that you'll get your own room at the heavenly hotel. The Greek word used here is related to the verb abide that Jesus uses again and again in John's Gospel, and perhaps most famously with these words: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” So, when our Lord speaks of his Father's house, he says that in that house there are abiding places, or to paraphrase, spaces in which we have communion with God.  While the fullness of that communion is promised in the greater life, there is also the implication that this communion is for here and now. Our Lord says I go before you to prepare a place for you that where I am there ye may be also. When our Lord goes to the cross, he creates this dwelling place of communion with his Father. You see, even while on the cross he is still in communion with his Father. It is the truth of our Lord's crucifixion that he takes the Father with him into that time. The witness of the Psalms is that the speaker addresses God in the midst of suffering and distress. Empty platitudes or pious aphorisms are no where to be found. As Christians, we recognize that God is present in light and beauty and happiness. But the mystery and power of our faith is that, as our Lord was in communion with God on the cross and offered that sorrow and pain back to God, so we can by faith recognize that God is working in the darkness and accidents and grief. Our grief finds meaning and consolation in the one who asks, behold and see, is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?

On this day, let us offer our grief to God. He does not ask us not to be sad or to pretend that everything is okay. What he asks us is to allow him to come into our hearts, to be with us in sorrow and pain. He asks us to loosen our grip on what the future might bring and in so surrendering, to open ourselves up more to love. On this day, we commend our beloved brother to that finished work of the Lord Jesus. And I, in the words of St. Paul,  commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Passion Sunday

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. 
                                                                 - St. John 12:24

The Gospel lesson this morning comes from one of the final public teachings of our Lord before his arrest and trial. The Greeks, we are told, come in search of Jesus. They are curious about him, but they do not understand the true heart of his mission which is not to amass followers but to walk in the way of love, even when this love would take him to the cross. Jesus tells his disciples a kind of parable: except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. Of course, our Lord is speaking of his own sacrifice; he dies our death and takes our punishment on himself. In so doing, he becomes the first of a race of human beings who have been re-created in this new Adam. By using this image of a seed put into the ground, our Lord also suggests that parables of God's kingdom are all around us. The cycle of death, rest and rebirth that is the basis of the seasons is a sign of truth of God as revealed in Christ. The statement also reminds us that love and death go together. In many ways I am a Christian today because when I read this in high school, it struck a nerve and I realized that love cannot be a generic love for humanity but has to be sacrificial love in which we die to ourselves to serve the good of another. To put it in its simplest terms, to love is to die. As long as there is no death to self, human relationships will be valued for what they can give or what comfort they provide.

Following on this idea of the relationship between love and dying, I want to look at the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, using our Lord's saying in John to understand more deeply this parable. The setup for the parable is that there is a man who is beaten and robbed and then left for dead on the side of the road. There are two men of religion who pass by the injured and dying man because, as we will see, they do not want to die. Then along comes a Samaritan man, who, contrary to every expectation, rescues and cares for the beaten man. In this Samaritan man's act of love there are three deaths.

The first death is in the form of a death to prejudice and social taboo. You see, Jews and Samaritans just did not associate together. There was a long history of antipathy and divisiveness that went all the way back to the original divorce between the nation of Israel after the reign of Solomon. The two succeeding kingdoms of Judah and Israel frequently fought one another for territory and power, and this discord continued up until the time of our Lord. Perhaps most infamously the Jews destroyed the Samaritans temple in 120 BC. The idea of Jews and Samaritans interacting was taboo in our Lord's time, and it would have been scandalous for a Samaritan to touch and care for a Jew. The Samaritan had to die to prejudice and anger and ill-will. He had to let go of the idea that when God commands us to love our neighbor, by neighbor is meant the person who is like me, comes from my same social class, has the same amount of education as I have, has the same religious and political views. The 19th century Scottish novelist and theologian George MacDonald wrote that, A man must not choose his neighbor: he must take the neighbor that God sends him. . . . The neighbor is just the man who is next to you at the moment, the man with whom any business has brought you into contact. The Samaritan in dying to prejudice and ill-will had the definition of who his neighbor is opened up in this expansive way.

The second death that the Samaritan met was the death of revulsion to blood and filth. We are told that, unlike the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, the Samaritan goes directly to the man: Jesus says, when the Samaritan saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast. The sight of blood and excrement and filth can provoke in us strong reactions. They can easily make us gag or feel faint. The natural human reaction to such things is to run away. Love calls us, however, to die to our revulsion, to remember that we ourselves are but dust and ashes, and that, not to put too fine of a point on it, a time is likely to come when we will being lying helpless in our own filth, and we will have to depend on the love of another.

The third death of the Samaritan was that of dying to our instinct for self-preservation. Again we are told that the Samaritan took the wounded man to an inn where he put him in lodgings and agreed to pay for his care. Jesus says, the Samaritan brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Two pence, far from being the equivalent to two pennies, was about two days' wages. We are not told if the Samaritan had relations for whom he had to care, but two days pay is a significant loss not to mention the promise of additional money to see the man to health. But all of this is not the focus of Samaritan because he is driven by love which causes him to die to these concerns of self-preservation. In feeling our instinct for self-preservation, we can often rationalize and say things like, you don't want to give so much away that you hurt yourself. On the contrary, we can be secure in dying to the instinct of self-preservation because we know that God is our provider and he is the one who gives us life, not money or material or reputation, as much as those things can lure us into the false confidence that the they are our security.

So, to sum up, in the love of the Samaritan we see three deaths: the death to prejudice and social barriers, the death to revulsion; and the death of the instinct for self-preservation. It is not surprising that our Lord's love takes a similar shape. In him we see a death to prejudice and social barriers. He associated with sinners, and Samaritans and even some Gentiles. But the greatest barrier that he crossed was that between God and humanity. St. Paul writing of Christ's humility said that, though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, [and was] born in the likeness of men. In his love, our Lord died to the revulsion of blood and filth. He touched lepers and those who were unclean who in that society would have been like untouchables. But he also overcame this revulsion in a spiritual sense, by not turning away from sinners, those who are dirty because their souls are devoid of joy, gratitude and love. Rather, he came to make these whole by his touch. Finally, our Lord died to his instinct to self-preservation by taking to himself the vulnerability of a small child in a stable in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. This surrender reached its natural conclusion when he gave himself away so much that it led him to the cross. The instinct for self-preservation was answered by this ultimate sacrifice of love.

My question to you this morning is, Who is the neighbor who is challenging you to die to your prejudices, to die to your revulsion, to die to your instinct for self-preservation? We can avoid this neighbor, pass by the other side, but we will remain alone. But if we die, we will bring forth much fruit for the Lord.